Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is arts administration a profession? Or is it just a job? Does it matter?

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on……………………………..”

Note:  There is a gathering to learn more about, and rally in support of,  the California Arts in the Governor's Race campaign (to make the candidates aware of arts issues) -- this coming Wednesday, September 15th from 5:30-7:00pm at SOMArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan Street San Francisco, CA.  Please attend - this election may be the future of arts support in California for a long time to come and we need the sector to get involved. 

The Profession of Arts Administration?

Perhaps the concept of arts management as a “profession” has been slow to gain traction because we really still don’t consider arts administration as a profession ourselves. We may regard it as a legitimate career, but that is much different than thinking of what we do as a profession. When using the term "professional", more often than not, we think in terms of areas like the medical and legal professions. If we want to be expansive in our thinking, we probably include teachers, engineers, accountants and others. We think of the term “professional” often times as one engaged in pursuit of something for money as opposed to an amateur – such as in professional sports. But it is hardly useful to simply classify anyone paid to do something as a professional and anyone not paid as an amateur. “Professional” has the connotation of having reached a certain level of competence and accomplishment, while amateur implies someone either not serious about the subject area, or one still learning the intricacies of achieving a certain level of skill.

Webster’s definition of profession is: “a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation”. Wikipedia’s definition is this: “The word professional traditionally means a person who has obtained a degree in a professional field. The term professional is used more generally to denote a white collar working person, or a person who performs commercially in a field typically reserved for hobbyists or amateurs.” Well, I certainly think running a nonprofit arts organization is a calling and does require specialized knowledge, though long and intensive academic preparation is more often than not absent from training for our administrators and managers. I would grant that those university degree (and perhaps even certification) programs in arts administration (business preparation) might qualify, but the fact is that most of our administrators have never completed any such program. Few of the tens of thousands of paid, full time working arts administrators have such a degree. Moreover, while some of those programs certainly offer rigorous, intensive academic preparation, many do not approach such a high bar and rather offer not much more than basic exposure to but a few nuts & bolts areas in which an arts administrator arguably must have competence to be qualified as a “professional”.

Whether or not arts administration is a profession, may largely rest, I think, with how we who are arts administrators perceive what we do ourselves. And our self-perception governs to a large degree what we expect and demand of ourselves as a class of workers.

Perhaps a telling sign is the absence of the exterior signs of our regarding our work as a profession. Where is the mechanism for certification for professional administrators ? Where is the set of minimum standards of training? Where is the mechanism to review competency? Where is the authoritative, credentialed, academically rigorous National Nonprofit Arts Journal? Where are the White Papers on policy issues? Where is the ongoing continuing education of the field – post academic graduation? Where is the relationship between the university academic degree in arts administration programs and the working administrator field? Where are the professional trade associations that require some level of competency for admission?

Does it matter whether we are in fact, or even just consider ourselves to be, a profession? Given the variety of levels and demands of our work, the unattractive pay schedules and benefits compensation packages available to us, and the perpetual, never ending budget constrains under which we operate, is it ever likely we will be able to set a standard of minimal knowledge as entry level qualification to be a “professional “arts administrator? As we have been for a long time, we are arguably lucky to have people not just willing, but passionate, to fill open positions. Our people are often trained “on the job” as they grow into their positions over time. We learn by doing. And while an imperfect system, nonetheless our people are survivors and have done pretty good with what they have.

Enough to be called “professionals”? I don’t think so. We need more.

I think we have finally come to the point where it is now possible to move towards the professionalism of our field. Enrollment at degree in arts administration university programs continues upward -- and more of those trained new leaders are migrating to the nonprofit arts field. While we may still be some ways from establishment of minimal standards of practice and skills levels for our managers, there is, if not in actual fact, at least a lot more discussion of moving towards providing continuing quality training. Emerging leaders are organizing and the concept of minimal competencies is gaining traction.

I think we ought to move, to the extent we practically and reasonably can, and as quickly as we can, towards regarding ourselves as a profession and justifying that self-designation by requiring (increasingly more demanding) minimal standards for training (initial and ongoing) so that we may get better at what we do – as individual administrators and managers, and perhaps even more importantly, as a ‘whole’ field. I think we also need to spend some time and energy developing some of those hallmarks and symbols of a profession – including:

• Some sort of professional association which membership confers recognition of achievement of minimal training and education. That might be a small group to start with, but it can grow exponentially over time, and it can set a benchmark to which we can aspire as a field.

• Increased numbers of university degree in arts management programs and some sort of minimal course regiment for graduation. To the extent the people running these programs can continue to work together to set some sort of common standards for graduation, we will elevate the march towards professionalism within our sector.

• Ongoing mechanisms for career long learning and training opportunities in a wide variety of skills enhancement areas (beyond just the five to ten basic subject areas that now seem to dominate 98% of all so called “professional” development opportunities). We absolutely must institute a wide ranging, comprehensive plan to provide professional development to all arts administrators on a continuing basis. University degree programs have to figure out what their role will be in that (both as individual local institutions and as the collective higher education sector), as do consultants, recently retired senior leaders, and funders. And we must include some sort of online, on-demand teaching.  Professional development cannot remain confined to isolated workshops in fundamentals and hour long sessions at national conferences.  That is NOT professional development. 

• Some sort of professional journal where we can publish independent, academically rigorous, in-depth research and “white papers” on critical issues relative to our sector. A professional association of arts administrators can implement this and a score of other programs and tools that will enhance the professionalism of the field.

To the extent we consider arts administration to be a profession, and band together to install whatever mechanisms will help us to achieve levels of minimal standards of training as well as in the discharge of our responsibilities – we will, I think, accomplish two goals: First, we will become better managers – better trained and prepared – by virtue of our demanding more of ourselves.  That will, in turn, attract better candidates to our ranks and instill a sense that we expect minimum standards of ourselves; and Second, we will raise the level of public respect for what we do by legitimately planting in the public psyche that arts administration is a profession – with the highest standards. That change in public perception will go a long way to garnering public support for all that we do, and all that we need.

This will take time. First we need to raise the bar and agree by consensus on some sort of ongoing minimal standard of continuing learning. Much like what we want for K-12 students in arts education, we too need standards & assessment, curriculum based ongoing training and education by experts, in the full range of subjects and areas that would constitute a true “professional” class level of expertise. That is the ultimate goal. Until we can get there, we need to expand the provision of training to include as comprehensive an offering of courses as we can manage, and make those training opportunities available to all arts administrators across the whole country. And we need to make it a generally accepted proposition that to work in this field, leaders must continually update their skills levels and core competencies – not as some luxury, or elective indulgence, but as an essential, even mandatory indisputable process that we all agree is the minimum level of professionalism we will accept.

Have a great week.
Don’t Quit.